“It’s an exciting time for the Center for Brazilian Studies and the Latin American Institute. We have a lot of opportunities that we haven’t had before," says Director Karin Nielsen, an M.D. on the faculty of the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine.
International Institute, June 26, 2013 —
When you meet Karin Nielsen, you would never suspect just how busy she is. Her relaxed, easygoing manner belies the enormous workload she carries as a professor of pediatric infectious diseases
at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, a working doctor at the UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center and director of the UCLA Center for Brazilian Studies
Not to mention the medical research that she conducts in places like Brazil and Mozambique, most of which concerns the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). The collaborative research she has conducted has, in fact, changed HIV standards of care worldwide.
Among her many accomplishments, Nielsen has developed or assisted in the development of seven NIH protocols implemented in Brazil and other international sites. She has also worked with UCLA engineering colleagues on a video game
that uses crowd-sourcing techniques for diagnostic purposes; the game enables non-experts to diagnose malaria-infected blood cells on the basis of digital images.
Dr. Karin Nielsen with a former UCLA pediatric colleague and her baby.
Daughter of a Danish father and a Brazilian mother, Nielsen grew up in Rio de Janeiro. After completing medical school (Universidade do Rio de Janeiro) and a pediatric residency (Hospital dos Servidores do Estado) in Brazil, Nielsen came to UCLA. Here, she completed a five-year clinical research and virology fellowship in pediatric infectious diseases and a master’s degree in public health and epidemiology. She joined the faculty of the Geffen School in 1996, where she has been ever since.
Forging strong Brazilian links with south campus: Ciência Sem Fronteiras
When I caught up with Nielsen recently, she had just come from an International Institute meeting and was preparing to go to Brazil the next week, in part to lay the groundwork for a faculty exchange program between the Geffen School of Medicine and Brazilian medical schools. She has been conducting HIV treatment and prevention research in Brazil for almost 20 years, creating a consortium of research institutions in Rio de Janeiro, Porto Alegre, Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Ribeirao Preto in the process.
“It’s an exciting time for the Center for Brazilian Studies and the Latin American Institute,” she remarked, “We have a lot of opportunities that we haven’t had before. We have Ciência Sem Fronteiras [the Brazilian Scientific Mobility Program], we have the Lemann Foundation Scholarships, and we have the highest number of Brazilian students at UCLA that we’ve ever had.”
Those numbers are about to expand rapidly. The Scientific Mobility Program
of the Brazilian government was launched in 2011 to provide scholarships to 100,000 undergraduate and graduate Brazilian students of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The scholarships enable the students study at universities around the world — including UCLA — for a year or more (up to four years for a full Ph.D.), after which most will return to Brazil to complete their degrees at their home universities.
Jointly funded by the Brazilian Ministry of Education and Ministry of Science and Technology through their respective funding agencies, CPES and CNPq, the program also offers research and teaching fellowships in Brazil to promising new Ph.D. graduates and established scholars from U.S. universities.
In Brazil, said Nielsen, universities at the federal, state and city level are free, but very competitive. “Ciencias Cem Fronteiras,” she noted, “is opening opportunities for a lot of Brazilian students who otherwise might not be able to come to this country because they don’t have the resources — it’s making international education available to everyone.”
STEM graduate students at UCLA will each be assigned a faculty advisor, explained Nielsen. Those in the shorter "sandwich" year will conduct research with their advisor for a year; those pursuing a Ph.D. will enroll in a regular doctoral program. Undergraduate students will be channeled through UCLA Extension, which will help place them, find housing, enroll, and then catalogue their courses and get them a transcript. The students will attend courses offered both by UCLA Extension and the university’s professional schools.
“We also have a lot of internship opportunities in industry for these students,” said Nielsen, noting that Boeing and other U.S. companies planned to offer such positions.
Roughly 15–17 students in the Brazilian Scientific Mobility Program are already at UCLA, said Nielsen, with more “trickling in” depending on when their faculty advisors want them to come. Finding courses that fit their academic profile can be a challenge.
Technically undergraduates, many in the medical sciences — such as those studying to become doctors, dentists or pharmacists — pursue a six-year undergraduate program in Brazil, whereas in the United States, such degrees are pursued at the graduate level in professional schools.
Clinical rounds, Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, June 14, 2013. L to R: Livia Prearo, Pediatric Infectious Diseases Fellow Kevin Quinn, Dr. Karin Nielsen and Camila Correa. Prearo and Correa are medical students in the Brazilian Scientific Mobility Program.
“I’ve been helping with the medical school part of the program, “said Nielsen, “We’ve been trying to develop a way in which Brazilian medical students can also have the opportunity to experience our medical school, as they don’t want to be divorced from medicine for a whole year.
“So they will take a lot of biology, public health, and health economics courses — courses that they wouldn’t take at their home universities — for 9 months, and then they will have a 12-week experience in our medical school, following our faculty and participating in rounds.”
Luckily, Nielsen and the Center for Brazilian Studies are receiving a great deal of support from the Brazilian Consulate in Los Angeles. “They actually have a person designated at each consulate to deal with Brazilian Scientific Mobility Program issues and to take care of the students,” she remarked.
Speaking with Nielsen, you realize how very lucky the Center for Brazilian Studies is. “I work routinely with Brazil, so it’s not new for me. Ever since I’ve been at UCLA, I’ve worked extensively with colleagues in Brazil, so I go back and forth. . . . I’m familiar with the Brazilian research system, and certainly with the medical schools in Brazil — I know how they operate, what courses people take, what are the expectations of their students.”
Expanding Brazilian participation on north campus as well: Lemann Scholarships
Concurrently with the Brazilian Scientific Mobility Program, Nielsen is overseeing the Jorge Paulo Lemann Scholarship and Fellowship Program
. This program was established by the UCLA Center for Brazilian Studies in July 2010 through a generous gift of Jorge Paulo Lemann. The program supports the tuition costs of outstanding and deserving Brazilian students at UCLA in any discipline for one year (with the possibility of renewal for a second year). It also offers short-term fellowships to American students to study in Brazil in established non-degree programs.
One of Brazil’s most successful businessmen, Lemann is an active philanthropist with a specific interest in improving Brazilian education to promote social transformation.
Brazil comes to UCLA this fall
In fall 2013, the Brazilian Consulate in Los Angeles and the UCLA Center for Brazilian Studies will cosponsor a Brazilian Scientific Mobility Program event at UCLA. The reception will welcome Brazilian students of the program who are studying at institutions all over Southern California, as well as in Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii. Attendees will include the Brazilian Consul in Los Angeles, some 150 to 200 Brazilian students, representatives of the Lemann Foundation (a cosponsor of the program), represenatives of CPES and CNPq, and invited UCLA faculty from across the campus.
Conceived as an orientation session complete with Brazilian food, Nielsen explained, “We’re going to give the [STEM] students an orientation regarding several aspects of their studies, including where to live, laws and regulations — even drivers’ licenses.”
Dr. Karin Nielsen.
Finding time for research
Calling her work at the Center for Brazilian Studies “a labor of love,” Nielsen remains committed to her own research. In addition to ongoing research in Brazil, she is conducting studies in Mozambique with the non-profit organization DREAM
(Drugs Resources Enhancement against AIDS and Malnutrition).
An initiative staffed by roughly 100 Italian medical professionals of the Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio, DREAM is a health delivery program that takes care of people with HIV and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in 10 countries of Africa.
“They have 33 centers and 200,000 patients in their care and everything is computerized,” she explained. “What happens is that they have innovative ideas — like treating women with HIV with antiretroviral drugs while they are breastfeeding — and because they run their own clinics, they can actually implement the ideas very quickly,” she continued. In this particular case, she noted, they implemented the treatment far ahead of others working in the field, with amazing results.
DREAM has a highly innovative model of care, said Nielsen. “They have not only doctors, but also nurses and other health professionals, including patient health activists who assist other patients.” Twice a year, moreover, the organization holds meetings at which it trains local health care professionals in the countries in which it works.
Although HIV/AIDS is devastating, Nielsen pointed out that the epidemic has resulted in the building blocks of healthcare systems in Africa. DREAM, for example, has created an infrastructure and been very successful in first treating HIV, and then the attendant maladies of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, she said.
Looking at her work to date — teaching medicine, researching HIV transmission, administering scholarship programs and running an interdisciplinary research center — it will be surprising if we don’t hear a lot more about Karin Nielsen in the future.
An interdisciplinary institute devoted to research, education, publications and public outreach, the Latin American Institute has forged strong links with UCLA’s south campus, where the university’s schools of science, medicine and engineering are located. Over the past year, one of the Institute’s working groups has brought together medical doctors and anthropologists to explore the health of indigenous children in Central and South America.
The Institute’s Center for Brazilian Studies seeks to promote greater understanding of and involvement with Brazil across the academic, public sector, business and professional communities, as well as by the general public. A special interest of the center is fostering collaborative scientific research with a global multidisciplinary focus by Brazilian and U.S. investigators. In addition to lectures and conferences, the Center sponsors a Brazilian film series the first Wednesday of every month at the James Bridges Theater in UCLA’s Melnitz Hall, which features recent films by leading Brazilian directors.